Friday, February 21, 2014

Can Classic Design Ever be "Good" Design?

Inga Saffron, Philadephia's architecture czar and one of my favorite journalists, has some choice words for the Mormon's developing Vine Street, and she's not holding back. 

Starting with "It's hard not to wince when you first look at the renderings," I can't help but wonder if she's just having a bad day. This is the critic who can't get enough of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson's Cheesecake Cube at 15th and Walnut. If you wince at any building that is more stimulating - for better or worse - than a glass box, should you be critiquing architecture?

I don't know anyone who winced.

The projects along Vine Street being developed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints include the Mormon Temple currently under construction, a small community center, and a highrise apartment building. Saffron referred to the collection as "one of the weirder ensembles produced in 21st-century America outside of Las Vegas."

That just seems uncharacteristically harsh

She claimed the meeting house looked like it was "dragged across town" from Society Hill, despite the similarly scaled Quaker Meeting House just three blocks away. She went on to call the church itself is "a snow-white, double-spired, French classical Mormon temple." 

Okay, now I don't think she's having a bad day. I think shes drunk.

Gracefully respecting its surroundings, Philadelphia's Mormon Temple reflects the classical architecture of its neighbors. Should every new building be innovative, groundbreaking, or an "exciting" glass curtain, even our most sacred places?

The apartment tower and community center are designed by Robert A. M. Stern. I appreciate her frustration with Stern's safe designs, but he designs handsome buildings. Saffron cites his Museum of the American Revolution a an example of his flaccid designs. The museum is no exception and it's not an exceptional building, but despite its odd cupola it's a fine building befitting its neighborhood and its collection. 

Saffron almost seems relieved that the Art Commission has criticized the design, yet she has said little of the museum since her first critique in 2012. It's almost as if the commission's decision was her cue to say, "look, I'm not crazy."

Saffron did take time to speak to Tom King who manages real estate investment for the LDS Church, appreciating the urban design of the space and the church's investment in an undesirable part of near-Center City. Parking will be underground and no walls will be blank, even those facing Vine Street and the expressway's cloverleaf.

But when it comes to the design, Saffron has no patience for what she says "belongs in the past." While developers with the LDS Church will likely move forward with the proposed design, it exists solely in two dimensional renderings, yet Philadelphia's top architecture critic has already relegated it to the bowels of the city's worst, with Dranoff's "Nightmare on Broad Street."

The LDS Church's apartment building doesn't just offer all residents unique views of the city, it's widest wall faces Vine Street's unsightly cloverleaf, blocking it from those who'd rather forget it's there. Unlike Cira Centre that flanks its western banks with modern design that defines University City's identity as unique, Stern's tower reaches across Vine Street and shakes hands with Center City's history, integrating Vine Street with the rest of the city as if it had always been there.

Its apartment tower offers more than nostalgia. Instead of facing Center City flatly, giving half of its residents a skyscraping view and the others a view of North Philadelphia, its narrow edge faces the city, offering all residents a compromising, angled view of the skyline with half facing the Parkway and the others facing the Ben Franklin Bridge. 

Beyond all the artistic rhetoric and intellectualism that only the schooled understand, it's not a dull building. It's not groundbreaking, but it doesn't need to be. It's crowned with upper floors gracefully tiered like The Drake or Rockefeller Center. Assuming developers don't skimp on materials it will be appreciated by those passing by and the general public, those that really matter.

As for the Mormon Temple and community center, they may appear to echo fanciful fairy tales or princess palaces, but they're not bland historic interpretations that attempt to fade into the shadows. Like the Basillica of Saints Peter and Paul across the street, the temple is bold. What makes the Mormon Temple look like a scene from Wizard of Oz is our local unfamiliarity with Mormon architecture. To an equally unfamiliar eye, Catholic architecture is just as bizarre. 

Developers with the LDS may not be attempting to elevate architectural design or art theory, but unlike Mac cubes and glass curtains that art critics continue to applaud for their absent presence, these projects along Vine Street offer something pleasant, classic, and lasting.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree here. When I saw the rendering of the tower I was extremely excited.

    I don't know why her column was so nasty. Like, the Mormon Temple sits right next to the Family Court building. I wonder if she criticized its French appearance realizing that the Free Library and Family Court were inspired by Place de la Concorde in Paris.

    The Parkway here SHOULD be Neoclassical. Almost every building on it is already! It's meant to be a grand boulevard. The sooner we can build on those playing fields and increase the frontage to eliminate the emptiness that the Park Towne Place setbacks cause, the better.

    The only criticism I see as valid is of the community center. It does seem out of place and also a bit out of scale with the rest of the area. It's not a very inspiring building. Just build it in a more modern classical style and I think it'd be fine.